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  08:10:26 am, by Nic Wilson   , 4042 words  
Categories: Nexus


I hadn?t seen HR in a week. He?d taken the time off, let a mousy little girl who was second in his chain of command take over. But I barely saw her; she?d always acted like I was one wrong word away from belting her in the mouth- which was strange since she was always unbelievably pleasant, and even her timidity had a charm to it. But now that she had a slightly more reasonable fear I was out to punch HR personnel, she hid from me; I don?t about literally- I never caught her hiding under a desk, but I got the distinct impression that she?d always just left a room right before I entered it. 


But this is the day HR was scheduled to be back on the job. I didn?t wait for his comms to come officially back online before I walked into his office.


I expected a reaction, but he didn?t even look up from the memos he was catching up on. ?Are we going to have a problem?? I asked.


?Why would we??


?I beat you with my fists until you shat blood on your carpet. Most men wouldn?t take that lying down.?


He finished reading the last memo he was working on, and only then did he respond. ?You did what you believed you needed to do. As I did while you were incapacitated.?


?I suppose that?s about the best answer I could expect.?


I was about to turn on my heels when he continued. ?But don?t you feel a little better about things now? Haley didn?t finish her final test, but Vipisana withstood a good deal of torment before the testing was interrupted. If she could reach out and control someone, myself or the two posted guards, she didn?t even try. Feel free to say yes, I won?t take your agreement as an endorsement of my methods. Or are you worried she might??


?Do you really want me to hurt you again??


?I understand your anger, even if I disagree with its placement. I did what was necessary. Just like you every day. You?re an egalitarian, and the thought of being in charge doesn?t quite sit right with you, but, you need to maintain a certain distance. So you take advantage in little ways, acting like a flaming jackass, just so everyone knows you?re special- that you?re the boss. That?s also why you needed to beat the shit out of me, to return to our old dynamic. And that?s why I don?t hold it against you.?


?Just so we?re clear, I do hold it against you. And it would be wise if you didn?t mention her.?


?Of course.?


The meeting left a bad taste in my mouth, or maybe I wasn?t satisfied leaving with him still able to taste with his. I don?t know if it was Freudian, but without trying to I ended up at PsychDiv?s door; not her office, her room. I must have pinged her while I was focusing on the way HR?s blood felt on my fist last time we?d been in a room together. I stood there a moment, wondering if I should knock, before she called me. ?I?m not decent.?


?That sounds like an invitation, to me.? Her picture popped up on my eyescreen, wearing a nightgown. ?But I?d say at a minimum you look decent. I?d probably go further, charming, maybe handsome.?


?Goddamnit. I never get video to shut off properly. Just let me get a robe on.? A moment later her door opened. ?Not a social call, I presume??


?In kind of a mood.?


?And you deigned to share it with me. I?m flattered.?


?Are you supposed to be facetious with patients??


?Are you a patient? Last I checked you were assigned to Nurse McCain. And last I looked, this wasn?t my office.?


?Patient, fuckbuddy. That line is so vague.?


?No, I think that line- you just crossed.?


?Really? As in I should leave, and take my problems with me? You fishing for an apology? Or just giving me a verbal spanking??


?Also, last I heard, you were living with an alien telepath.?


?Just because I have a beautiful garden at home doesn?t mean I can?t stop to smell the roses.?


?So long as you?re stopping at flirting I don?t mace you and toss you on my stoop.?


?Fair enough.?


?Presumably you came here to talk.?




?Okay, well, I?ve just traced you back to HR. So I?ll assume it has something to do with the, altercation.?


?I beat the hell out of him.?


?Do you prefer that language??


?I prefer the accuracy. Don?t sugar-coat it.?


?Do you think you resorted to violence too easily? Do you think perhaps your record in SecDiv has made you more prone to see violence as a viable solution to interpersonal conflict??


?I think that?s the easy excuse, and not at all what I?m looking for. I hurt him because I wanted to; maybe it was also the right thing to do. And because it was necessary to maintain the power dynamic; but what bugs me is he seems okay with that. Okay with a lot of things I?m not sure I am.?  


?Like what??


?Am I a jerk to the crew? Do I lord it over the peasants??


?I like to think you?re a beneficent dictator.?


?Heh. Dictator.?


?If a childish one. Why? Feeling guilty over the massive disparity in power??


?Well. Uncomfortable, maybe. I like to think I decide things in the least inequitable terms possible, but? and it isn?t like I?m delusional enough to think that in this circumstance democracy is even remotely appropriate. We cast our vote when we walked onto this ship. It?s just? a lifetime is a long time to let a single decision play out.?


?Yeah. But that?s why they made certain we understood what we were deciding. They didn?t put us through those interminable HR presentations just because they?re sadists- well, okay, HR people tend to get into that profession because they?re sadists, it?s just a perk of the job. But they wanted to make sure we knew this was a one-way ticket. We get to see the cosmos, serve on a cutting edge vessel doing cutting edge science while making first contact with dozens of worlds. But it?s a decision without a back door.?


?Heh. Back door.?


?I think I have to take it back, a little bit. You do lord it over the rest of us. You make sure, in every conversation, that we know you?re different. Special, oft times code for specially deficient. And I think it?s a defense mechanism. Because you know, some day, at some point, you might have to leave any one of us, or even large swaths of us, behind. You want to keep a distance, not a professional one, but a personal one. Both to be able to do your job, and to protect yourself from the consequences of it.?


?You know you?re really beautiful when you root around in my brain like a boar after a truffle.?


She smiled; she loved truffles, and appreciated me remembering it, even if she wouldn?t give me the satisfaction of saying so. ?I take away your pain. So you associate me with feeling good. It?s not uncommon for a patient to become fixated on their doctor.?


?But like you said, I?m not your patient.?


?And I?m not your truffle. So don?t even think about snuffling me.? She was herding me towards her door.


?Are you calling me a pig??


?If the hoof fits. And technically, you called me a pig a moment ago, even if you classed it up a little; or maybe it wasn?t classy, and you were also calling me a bore.? Her door slid shut with me on the other side of it.


?I always do enjoy sparring with her,? I said to myself. I like PsychDiv?s breasts. ?You don?t get a vote.? Why not? I already remember SecDiv?s breasts. And Sam?s. ?Because that?s lousy criterion for a relationship.? Why? You like breasts. Or you would consider males viable romantic candidates. ?Touché. But I?m still the one in charge of the hands, so I make the breast-related decisions.?


I hesitated. ?You?ve been quiet lately, or I?d have asked already, but how are you?? Diminished. In time, I will rebuild. ?Well, you probably saved my life- maybe just as a byproduct of saving your own, but still. Thank you.? Hmm. I believe I like being thanked. ?Yeah, just don?t let it swell your head- because your head is in my head, and there?s only so much room in there, big though women tell me it is.?


I had a call come in. It was HR. ?I trust you?re done talking to yourself- or your mind-herpe. You left before I could mention the festivity. There?s a celebration scheduled for this afternoon, for the newborn. She?s not the first baby born on ship; in fact, she?s the fourth, but the other three were all conceived back on earth.?


?The first space-bred baby, yeah. It doesn?t feel like we?ve been out here long enough to gestate a whole baby.?


?I know. But since I?m still a little banged up, you and SecDiv will have to do the ribbon-cutting thing.?


?You don?t mean the umbilical cord, do you? Because I don?t know if I?m up for that.? In my brain castration fears crashed against the image of placental juices shooting out of a severed umbilical at the strength of a fire hose. Fun. That?s why he doesn?t get a vote. Ever.


?Baby?s been out the better part of a week, so I imagine someone from medical has taken care of it by now.?


SecDiv was waiting in the nursery. Really, it was just one of the normal MedDiv admitting rooms with some natal machinery pushed into it. The child was a girl, blond, and curled up around a big fluffy teddy bear. She was so tiny, not so much a human being as the potential for one, with a full, open life ahead, pregnant with possibilities. ?How?s the boobicle??


?The huh?? she asked.


?Well, neuticles are testicular prostheses, so I thought?


?I didn?t lose my whole breast. And we ended up using stem cells. I don?t know, I didn?t like the idea of a clone, even one without a functional brain, missing part of her breast tissue just so I didn?t have to. Want to touch it??


?If I ever answer ?no? to that question, shoot me, because it?s either not really me, or I?ve lost all will to live.?


?I wasn?t offering. Just asking. To see if you were back to your old self.?


?You tease.? 


?And you love it.?


?I do. Though sometimes it makes me wish I had neuticles- because fake balls can?t be blue.?


?They probably come in a variety of colors. For a while people were getting scrotal LEDs that had to be charged sleeping on a special induction charging pad. It makes me feel old, but I don?t think I?d go home with someone whose balls were glowing in the dark.?


?What if they were able to hum the Star-Spangled Banner??


?I? suppose it would depend on the man?s personality, at that point. And whether or not it was a constant loop or had an off button.?


?So you not being able to turn off a man?s testicles would be a turn off. Noted.? SecDiv was looking at me, out of the corner of her eyes. ?You?re not going to start doing that, are you??


?What?? she asked.


?The way you?re looking at me. You?ve looked at me like that before. And it?s trouble. Of the fun, sweaty, fulfilling kind, under previous circumstances. But complicating, now.?


?I can handle it. Just? kissing you, looking at babies. It?s got me nostalgic.?


?I don?t remember making out with you in nurseries, and that sounds creepy enough I?d remember it.?


?No, but we talked about having kids. Someday wanting them, anyway.?


?In the future.?


?And here we are, in the future. That?s all I?m saying. It?s not the future we pictured- but it?s also not not that future, either. It?s??




?Since when don?t you appreciate me complicating your life??


I smiled at her. ?Just not too complicating.?


?Of course. Sam might be able to take me in a catfight.?


?Yeah, but it?d be hot.?


?You ever think about anything else??


You should tell her. ?Sometimes. What the hell are we doing here again??


?Well, once MedDiv finishes mother-henning over the crowd, we wheel the baby out, you give a brief speech, then glad-hand. And sometime after that, we go see what SciDiv has to say about the new pods. I have my fingers crossed it?s a set of goose-eggs. I don?t think I?m ready to leave the ship yet.?


?Nerves?? I asked.


?Your stupid ass tried to die. Well, your stupid ass has been trying to die since the first time I went out in the field with you, but it?s the closest I?ve seen you come to succeeding. I?m not really in a rush to get back into that kind of a position.?


?See, the girl I knew was always eager to get into just about any position.?


?It really is like having a conversation with a sexually hyperactive child.?  


?You?re just jealous of my childlike wonderment.?


?You can stick your wonderment sideways. And it looks like we?re getting the all clear- though where he was concerned people would find smallpox on the ship to pass to the child, we?ll never know.?


?I think SciDiv has some in his lab- and occasionally some in a tuna fish sandwich he leaves out for his intern. Who so far hasn?t taken the bait.?


?Don?t forget to smile at people. They?re recording this for posterity. But not that wide; it makes you look like a hillbilly on lithium.?


I read a statement HR and one of the PsychOffs wrote from my eyescreen. It?s a mountain of political and spiritual clichés, with just the slightest hint of go-go corporatism for those who hadn?t already lost their lunch.


After that I met the parents, one of the few married couples on board. There had been a lot of rumors about the baby?s name, that she was going to be, ?Hope? or even ?Discovery.? The parents named her Alexandra. ?She?s going to be captain someday,? the mother told me, and only then seemed to realize there was something wrong with what she said. ?You know, after you die- probably from rough sex.?

?With an alien??


?Or whoever.? I wanted to argue. I wasn?t sure I could, in good conscience.


Afterward SecDiv and I took the elevator down to SciDiv. He?d sent over a synced presentation with pictures and scans from the pods while we were at the baby shower or whatever it was. As we entered it kicked onto my eyescreen and the lab lights dimmed. 


?We?re calling the planet Speleothem, a catch-all term for cave deposits, because of those big spikes coming off the planet surface. They?re towers, but those towers are also cities, each one bigger than anything on earth. I mean, the smallest one of those puts New York and Rio to shame, if the infrareds can be trusted; the biggest one we?re calling Stalactite, which is where we dropped the commbox. But they?re all solitary. They don?t communicate through any spectrum we could analyze. Instead, they seem to have one central hub on-world, and every spire is connected to it. We?re calling it the ?fried egg?- which is apparently a type of stalagmite- because it?s short but wide.?


?This species is more advanced than anything we?ve seen. Right now, our scans are pointing to the likelihood that they?re more advanced than anything the Argos saw, too. And that?s where there?s a conundrum, really. They have absolutely no extraplanetary capabilities, which in a species this advanced is the opposite of what you?d expect. But they don?t even satellites.?


?A portion of this is likely explained by their organization. The fried egg is old-world tech- through physical lines- so relatively slow communication, but it seems like the spires are largely self-sufficient, so there isn?t much necessity for diplomacy.?


?Their economy, at least the external one, is based upon robotic mining. Android miners dig out from beneath the spires into intricate networks of tunnels. Each spire seems to have been placed on large ore deposits. The robots are several generations more sophisticated than the ones our company deploys. If they could get off world, this species would be our prototypical rivals. And physiologically, they?re big.?




?Well, yeah, I suppose they?re rape you if they want big, if that?s what you?re reacting to. Aggressive, too- the males, anyway. The females, well, there are different evolutionary solutions to dealing with large, aggressive males. The Romaelon solution is probably the most common, which is relatively large females. Another is larger and at least as aggressive females, mantises come to mind. The other is smaller, but craftier females. That?s what the Meh-Teh have.?


?Meh-Teh? What, you run out of interest in the middle of telling me what they?re called??


?Meh-Teh, it?s Tibetan for man-bear, and well wait until you see the imagery- which I should have flipped to before trying to describe them.?


?Crap. They kind of are man-bears. Sort of.?


?Yeah. Only, you see what look like paws? That?s actually basically a second hand attached at the wrist. It?s several times beefier than the ?normal? hand, likely used for fighting over females. And those claws partially retract, so what you?re seeing there, that?s only about half of the bloodletting sliciness they have on tap. The true hands are underneath and mostly obscured; they have ten digits- allowing for either greater intricacy or greater strength, depending on the task.?


?But compared to the Romaleon, how big are they??


?Little smaller, by mass. But the Romaelon were all tumors and skin; these things are muscle with just a little fur on top. Comparatively, the Romaleon were armadillos, these are built like a bull. Judging from the jaws the species evolved as a high order predator, but given the spires, which barring some truly game-changing tech couldn?t support a carnivorous diet, that?s had to change, so you can see the way the jaw is starting to recede and articulate; it?s kind of a midpoint between a polar bear?s jaws and a simian one. Still, there?s crazy fricking strong kinds of muscles attached, so don?t get bitten by one. Seriously- those are the opposite of the jaws of life.?


?The species can walk upright, but physiologically they?re still better suited to moving plantigrade on all fours. They lumber, but modeling suggests they?d have a running speed of more than thirty miles an hour. So don?t get into a situation where you have to run from them, either.? 


?So don?t get bit. Don?t run.?


?Stay the hell away from those claws, too.?


?Lovely. And we can?t video conference it, either. But you said the women are smaller.?


?Yeah, but I?m not sure how good an idea it is to show you, given your proclivities??


?Oh, come on, we?re all grown-ups here.? SecDiv snickered at me; he flipped to the next photo.


?Hmm. Yeah, I expected something grosser.?


?Yeah,? said SciDiv. ?I want to have sex with it, but I don?t want to admit wanting to have sex with it.?


?But you just did.?


?Could be something I?m on? anyway, sexual characteristics make her obviously female in a kinda disturbingly appealing sort of way. Smaller size, complemented by smaller secondary claw-hands and jaws indicate a less aggressive social place.?


?They might be a good deal smaller, but they?re faster than the males, too, more agile, and way way smarter. Historically, smaller size meant that they had to kill less to maintain themselves physically, and combined with their intellectual advantage, they probably would have been able to prevent unwanted mating. Likely this led to bartering sex for food, safety, and eventually social-standing.?


?Cut to today, the spires are all controlled by a matriarchal hierarchy. Males don?t even get access to the top third of the towers- they aren?t even built to accommodate them. But from what we can tell from the data this works out great for everybody involved. The men spend most of their time jostling for relative position- mostly beating the hell out of each other, playing their reindeer games- while the women keep things running- which might seem like an unfair division of labor, but the males ?helping? would probably be counterproductive.?


?The males must have to depend on women for almost all of the tech know-how, because their scorles on the Distance IQ test are only slightly higher than the Romaleon; males initially took possession of the commbox, and from the sounds, and the jostling, and the rocky video we recorded we?re fairly certain they took turns having sex with it. There?s a slight aptitude spike where it concerns combat, because they?re geared for it, and some of their war-games can get a little intricate, but you won?t catch any of the Meh-Teh males playing the piano.?


?The sole exception to men being stuck in the middle levels of the city are the security forces. They travel in threes, two males to one female, who?s always in charge. The security forces even have their own access tunnels throughout the spires that get them around the normal city traffic patterns. It?s all pretty astounding; the tech they?ve got is mostly decades ahead of ours. And it took them less than a day to get the commbox working and broadcasting- you know, after the men got tired of humping it- and they?ve built several commboxes since. We assume they?re distributing them to the various towers.? 


?You sound worried.?


?They could spank us pretty hard if they were so inclined. We?re talking World War 2 Germany against the World War 1 French level divide, here- Panzers versus pansies.?


?You think we should take a pass? Because I?m pretty sure species like this are the ones we?re out here to break bread with. Like you said, they?re potential rivals.?


?It just doesn?t make sense. A species this advanced without space travel, it has to be for a reason. Something in their past, maybe. Like how the Japanese forewent nuclear proliferation after they had nuclear armaments deployed against them. But I can?t think of a corollary that would apply here. But frankly, I?m not really here to weigh in on policy. Science is about making things make sense- that?s my job. It?s just not being able to make sense of something irks me.?


?Well, far be it for me to irk you. But unless you can come up with something concrete- even if you could, it would have to be something like a How to Cook Humans book- we haven?t much leeway. This is the job we signed up for.?


?Yeah, I?m mostly okay with that. After all, I?m not the one who has to go on-world.?


?I could always request you for the ground team.?


?And I could always inject myself with multiple STDs the morning of.?


?I think you win- if you?re willing to pickle your picking pepper.?


?I imagined as much. Just try not to get raped again. I don?t think they?re the gentle, cuddle afterwards kind.?


I turned to Elle. ?Wait, did I get cuddled on Oma??


?I?ve said too much already,? SciDiv said.

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